“Melancholia” is Lars von Trier’s intelligent, melodramatic, achingly beautiful and wickedly funny new film. It tells the story of Justine (a transcendent Kirsten Dunst), a severe depressive, and her doting and practical sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). Justine’s depression takes the corporeal shape of a planet called Melancholia, which is on a steady collision course with Earth. In the film’s stunning prologue, Mr. von Trier tactfully relieves the audience of any suspense concerning Earth’s fate, allowing the tone to shift from an end-of-the-world thriller to a character and relationship study. “Melancholia” uses the premise of an apocalypse to expose the frays in familial bonds—specifically, the intricate dynamic between two sisters. Justine and Claire’s bond is both affectionate and cruel, supportive and insensitive.
The film is divided into two parts named after each of the sisters. Although part one is named after Justine, the “melancholic” sister, this section of the film proves to be the most humorously absurd. Mr. von Trier is—gasp—having a bit of fun as we follow Justine through the grand charade of her wedding celebration. He has reined in all of his pals from films past to play members of the wedding party, including Charlotte Rampling and John Hurt as Justine’s backbiting parents, and Udo Kier the prim and fretful wedding planner. And despite Justine’s deep sadness during what is supposed to be the happiest day of her life, Ms. Dunst is luminous. Instead of portraying Justine as incessantly bleak, Dunst’s performance during this half the film is almost sphinxlike in its spontaneity. She does not skulk around in her wedding dress (although she does, at one point, gracefully urinate in it beneath the moonlight), but rather ventures in and out of the festivities like an elusive specter. And because von Trier has revealed the fate of these characters in the first ten minutes, the audience can empathize with Justine as she views her wedding with a growing sense of dread and indifference.
Part two is named for Claire, Justine’s pragmatic but anxious older sister. Although Claire grows weary and frustrated with Justine’s erratic behavior, she understands her sister’s illness and knows how to take care of her. Claire’s relationship with Justine becomes increasingly complicated in the film’s second half, as she grapples with her own growing anxiety over the path of Melancholia while simultaneously caring for Justine, who has become incapacitated by her depression. In contrast to the darkly sumptuous aesthetic of part one, with an alluring Justine wreaking havoc in a wedding dress, part two is more subdued and more painful to watch. Justine has lost her enigmatic glow, and von Trier, who has long suffered from depression himself, depicts her descent with alarming candor. It has been suggested that Mr. von Trier uses female characters in his films to represent his own struggles with depression. If “Antichrist” was considered by many to be too vicious and misogynistic, his rendering of Justine’s anguish in “Melancholia” is as upsetting as it is compassionate.
But part two is named “Claire” for a reason. As Melancholia becomes more of a threat, (the planet and the illness) Claire becomes fraught with worry that the end is near, and the sisters’ reactions to the planet begin to diverge. Justine begins to emerge from her depression and becomes more lucid, but is callous towards Claire’s distress. Justine feels a kinship with Melancholia; she embraces the planet as an actual representation and justification for her chronic illness. Yet, just as Claire strove to comfort Justine during her lowest points, Justine’s coldness turns into an intense stoicism, and eventually, into her own display of compassion, especially towards Claire’s son, Leo.
In “Melancholia,” the end of the world is not rendered with mass hysteria or with an overblown sequence of natural disasters, but rather with understated beauty. Bugs creep up from the soil, hail the color of pure white flower buds falls from the sky, all as Melancholia—massively exquisite in itself—looms closer and closer overhead. Despite its morbid theme, bone-rattling soundtrack straight from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, and the fact that it’s a Lars von Trier film, the tone of “Melancholia” is almost soothing. Mr. von Trier proposes that the end of the world, like his film, may just be a thing of beauty.